Film Review: The Wonders

A teenage girl’s coming of age is elegantly threaded into this lugubriously madcap Tuscany-set drama about family, history and obsession.
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The state of the ramshackle Tuscan farmhouse inhabited by the family whose members dart and gambol all through The Wonders, Alice Rohrwacher’s sleepy one-ring circus of a film, perfectly mirrors their everyday state of affairs. It’s beautiful in its way but not exactly well-maintained. Nevertheless, it stays up, just like this family stays together even as many of their violently oppositional attitudes would seem to be pulling them apart.

Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) is their German-born patriarch, a looming and unshaven figure of perpetual rage who doesn’t seem quite able to comprehend the modern world. Also frustrating is the fact that he’s managed to have four girls with his wife Angelica (the filmmaker’s sister, Alba Rohrwacher). He erupts at just about everyone within range at all times, like a perpetually exploding minefield. The target of most of Wolfgang’s wrath is, ironically, his eldest, Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), also the only one of the girls who seems able to help him in their beekeeping business. Making things even tenser is Wolfgang’s inexplicable decision to take in Martin (Luis Huilca Logroño), a troubled teenage boy with a criminal record who only speaks German.

Writer-director Rohrwacher never explicates the source of Wolfgang’s rage, but it seems in part to be directed at the modern, or at least outside, world. Because of that, the family seems to live in partial isolation. “When he’s not here, we can breathe, right?” Angelica jokes to them in a quiet moment away from Wolfgang. It’s an increasingly untenable situation for deeply shy Gelsomina, who’s old enough to be at least as interested in watching cute boys on scooters as she is in helping her dad scrape bees off honeycombs.

Dropping a roman candle of wonder into the family’s lo-fi life is the appearance of an absurd TV show that wants to wrap a supposed showcase for the area’s Etruscan heritage inside a ticky-tack competition for cash and a trip that will pit many of the local farmers against one another. It’s precisely the kind of thing that will send Wolfgang into a fit. But Gelsomina, in what looks like her first act of pseudo-rebellion ever, signs the family up for the competition anyway. She might be doing this for the family (they could clearly use the money). Or she might just be doing it out of the fascination she and her sisters hold for the show’s host, an ethereal creature draped in diaphanous garments and played with precisely the right level of vacuous grace by Monica Bellucci.

Gelsomina’s quiet revolt against the opaque illogic of Wolfgang’s many rules is eventually echoed by the other women in the family. It’s that background of stiffening resolve that carries the film through some of its many sun-dappled longueurs. Rohrwacher is not precisely a storyteller, as this quasi-magical-realist film, with its many dangling threads, amply proves. But she is a great dramatist nonetheless, tracing not just the potent dynamic of an already volatile family as it is faced with one new stressor after another, but the drama of watching an initially uncertain girl slowly unfold her wings and step into the wind.

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